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James Conklin is associate professor of applied human sciences at Concordia University.

Employees are resistant to change, right?

Consider the following little fable that pops up occasionally in business literature. When France fell during the Second World War, Britain began to prepare for a Nazi invasion. Weaponry was scarce and so some obsolete artillery pieces were returned to service. A time-motion expert worked with artillery crews to finalize their combat procedures, and as he watched one practise, he noticed something odd. Moments before the cannon was fired, two men came to attention for a brief moment, for no obvious reason. He asked one of the officers to explain. Initially the officer was puzzled, but then he remembered: "They are holding the horses."

This story captures the way many people think about reaction to change. Often that reaction comes in the form of resistance; people cling to outdated beliefs and practices. They are stubborn and ill-informed, and strangely unaware that progress requires that they embrace the new ways introduced by managers and consultants.

But is it always the case that when people refuse to enthusiastically sign on for management's latest initiative, they are showing themselves to be obstinate and old-fashioned?

Consider for a moment one of the more fascinating findings to come out of social-science research, known among academics as the "fundamental attribution error." This cognitive hiccup, described by Richard Nisbett and Lee Ross in their classic work Human Inference, works like this: When I encounter a negative behaviour in another person, I tend to explain the behaviour by attributing a trait to that person. Bob is late because he is disorganized. Sally's work is sloppy because she is uncommitted to this organization. However, when I exhibit the very same behaviour, I explain myself in terms of the situation. I was late because traffic was heavy. My progress report is sloppy because my workload is too heavy.

Maybe when people resist change, it's not because they are stubborn or old-fashioned, but because there is something going on in the workplace that makes it difficult for them to jump on the bandwagon.

Here's one example I've encountered. Management is introducing a major initiative to make the organization's culture more focused on customer needs. However, the process of change is complicated, and to go along with the change means that front-line workers will, at least for a while, be unable to provide what they consider to be an adequate level of customer service. The staff, being a motivated and dedicated bunch of people, resist the change in order to meet the needs of customers – even though meeting the needs of customers is precisely what motivated the change in the first place!

To make sure that your next change initiative doesn't end up in a vicious tail-chasing circle, spend plenty of time talking to employees about your plans, and listening to their reactions. Don't automatically fall into the stance of defending your proposals. Instead, consider how their worries and concerns are providing rich, useful information about the social milieu in which your change is taking shape. How might your initiative be strengthened so change doesn't disrupt or ruin worthwhile aspects of your workplace culture?

In a complex and fast-moving organization, the change leader's role is often not about coming up with all of the answers and then figuring out how to persuade staff to go along with the change. Instead, it's about creating opportunities to have conversations about worthwhile improvements. When you do this, some surprising and unintended consequences may surface that only a front-line professional could anticipate.